United States GP Paddock Notebook – Saturday

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AUSTIN – Qualifying for the United States Grand Prix in Austin today produced something of a surprise result. This may seem odd given that pole position was claimed by the driver with more than anyone else this season, but following Lewis Hamilton’s domination of practice in Austin, few would have expected Nico Rosberg to be the man on top in qualifying.

Alas, Rosberg was quicker when it mattered, producing a scintillating final lap in Q3 to bag his ninth pole position of the season at Hamilton’s expense. The Briton struggled with a brake problem, locking up even when he was backing off, which meant that he finished some three-tenths of a second adrift at the flag.

This is not the first time that Rosberg has performed a heist of this nature. In Canada, another of Hamilton’s favorite circuits, the German driver took pole after trailing in all of the practice sessions. He seems to have a knack for producing the goods when they matter.

That said, qualifying is not the be all and end all. No points are awarded on a Saturday, and with Hamilton hungry to take a huge stride towards a second world title, Rosberg will have his work cut out at COTA tomorrow.

Here’s the complete round-up from Austin on Saturday.

SESSION REPORTS

NEWS FROM THE PADDOCK

THOUGHTS FROM THE TRACK

Boycott? What boycott?

Yes, what boycott indeed? Well, it appears that there was a possibility that three of the F1 teams – Sauber, Lotus and Force India – would boycott this weekend’s United States Grand Prix in protest of the current financial structure of the sport and the subsequent cost crisis. As carried by only a few outlets, all of the teams did moot the possibility, only to then blame each other and say that they would be racing after all. As per the interviews Bernie Ecclestone has conducted today, the show will go on in Austin.

However, the very fact that actual concrete talks are now being held about the financial structure of the sport suggests that some ground has been made up. As we have chronicled over the past few days, the cost crisis dogging F1 at the moment is very serious indeed. Although the boycott appears to have been avoided for now, the very real danger of F1 shooting itself in the foot persists.

Rosberg picks his moment

Pole position appeared to have Lewis Hamilton’s name written all over it following the third and final practice session in Austin on Saturday morning. Surely, after topping all three practices, he couldn’t lose out in qualifying?

Well, he did. Lewis may have had problems, but Rosberg produced a fine final flyer to secure pole number nine of the season. This means he is guaranteed at least a share of the FIA Pole Trophy – although it will mean nothing if he doesn’t win the world championship.

However, Rosberg has won just once this year when both drivers have started on the front row of the grid, and that was at Monaco where overtaking is notoriously difficult. He may have the advantage for now, but Lewis will have his knife between his teeth in the race tomorrow. The championship fight will continue to rumble on, all for our amusement.

Williams best of the rest yet again

Or should that be “Bottas best of the rest yet again”? This is the sixth time in the last eight races that Valtteri Bottas has qualified inside the top three as he continues to establish himself as one of the breakout stars of the 2014 Formula 1 season. He was three-tenths clear of teammate Felipe Massa at the end of Q3, but both Williams drivers should be set to scrap over the final podium position in Austin as Red Bull and Ferrari struggle to keep up.

In Red Bull’s case, having Sebastian Vettel start from the pit lane means that he will be hoping for any kind of points (that said, the reduced field should help him). Seb played it smart in qualifying, doing enough to get within the 107% time of Hamilton whilst completing just three laps, thus saving the life on his engine. We all remember his escapades in Abu Dhabi 2012, and although a repeat is hard to see happening, he should still be fighting well within the points on Sunday.

Sutil and Maldonado come good

After struggling all year long, both Adrian Sutil and Pastor Maldonado finally got their acts together during qualifying at Austin. They will line up ninth and 10th on the grid respectively, marking a season best for both drivers.

Quite whether this form will translate into the race on Sunday remains to be seen, but after a difficult season, few would begrudge them some points. For Sutil, it would be the best possible time to score them, given that he has just one seat left to fight for at Sauber following Marcus Ericsson’s announcement.

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That’s all from the paddock today, but be sure to join us tomorrow for all of the news and analysis on the ground at COTA.

NBC/NBCSN SCHEDULE FROM UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX

NHRA: Funny Car driver J.R. Todd looks to snap slump, make history at U.S. Nationals

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In addition to being the most gratifying achievement of his NHRA drag racing career, winning the 2018 NHRA Funny Car championship was also the hardest thing J.R. Todd has ever done.

That is, until he tried to defend the title in 2019 – which has now become the hardest thing Todd has done behind the wheel.

After winning a career-best six wins en route to his title last season, Todd has had a rough campaign in the first 17 races of the current season, having earned just one win (Las Vegas) and two runner-up finishes.

In addition, he’s failed to make it out of the first round six times, and was stopped in the quarter-finals eight other times.

And as he prepares for next week’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis – the biggest race of the season – the 37-year-old Todd is mired in a difficult slump. Since losing to Ron Capps in the final round at Richmond, Todd has dropped from second to eighth in the Funny Car standings, unable to get past the second round of the nine subsequent events.

That’s why Todd is hoping for a major turnaround at the U.S. Nationals, the final qualifying race for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

J.R. Todd (Photo: NHRA).

A massive 416 points (the equivalent of more than three wins points-wise) out of first place, Todd needs to start a big comeback if he hopes to do well in the playoffs, and the U.S. Nationals is the perfect place for him to do so. Todd comes into this year’s race having won the last two Funny Car crowns at Indy in 2017 and 2018.

If he can make it three in a row, Todd will make NHRA history. To date, only two drivers – Top Fuel greats “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Tony Schumacher – have won three in a row at Indianapolis. But no Funny Car driver has ever done so, not John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme or anyone else.

“That’s some pretty elite company right there with Big Daddy and Tony Schumacher,” Todd told NBC Sports. “Really you try not to think about things like that and just focus on the mission at hand – and that’s to win the race.

“When you do that, then you can enjoy all the accolades that come with it. I have the two trophies that I can look at every day – and it’s an awesome reminder of what we’ve done. It was a dream of mine as a kid to go there and race in the U.S. Nationals as a professional someday and to have won it is still kind of a surreal feeling.”

Todd, who lives in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana, wants to be the first Funny Car driver to pull off that achievement — and at his home track, to boot.

“It’s the biggest race of the year and the one that everyone wants to win,” Todd said. “To go back there and win there three years in a row would be pretty special.

“For me, it’s the race I grew up going to as a kid. I have a lot of family and friends that go there. I live five minutes from the track, so it means everything to me.”

In a sense, his situation this season is kind of deja vu for Todd. Last season, he won two races earlier in the season (Las Vegas and Houston), then went into a slump much like the one he’s currently in.

But starting with last September’s win at Indianapolis, Todd went on to win four of the final seven races of the season — including three in the playoffs — to motor on to the championship.

What makes Todd’s success at Indy all the more unique is that while he’s a long-time drag racer, he only switched to Funny Car prior to the 2017 season. That means in just two seasons, the former Top Fuel pilot has not only twice won the sport’s biggest race, but also the championship.

The team Todd races for, Kalitta Motorsports, has a history of starting to hit its stride just before the playoffs begin in Funny Car. From 2014 through 2018, the organization has won 13 Funny Car races beginning with the second-to-last regular season race at Brainerd, Minnesota through the six playoff races. That’s 13 of 40 races, roughly 33% of the races that NHRA has won.

In addition to Todd’s two U.S. Nationals wins, Team Kalitta also won the Funny Car event in 2014 with now-retired driver Alexis DeJoria.

I knew coming over to drive the DHL Toyota Camry that we would have some good opportunities to win races,” Todd said. “For whatever reason, it seems like we pick up a lot of momentum at that time of year. We’re hoping we can keep that trend going this year.”

In a sense, the U.S. Nationals – the 18th and final regular season race of the overall 24-race NHRA schedule – are to the NHRA what the Daytona 500 is to NASCAR or the Indianapolis 500 is to IndyCar.

“It sets the tone for the next six races,” Todd said of the playoffs. “The U.S. Nationals are a marathon. It’s the one race where everyone brings out their best stuff because it’s so important.  So much of that preparation then carries over into the Countdown.

“If you ask drivers that haven’t won Indy before, I think they’d trade pretty much any win for that one.”

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